Friday, 22 November 2013

Knowledge and Ownership?

My first ever blog post today, brought on by a need to respond to some developments which are taking place in my area of expertise. So to briefly introduce myself; I'm Dr Rob Toulson of Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I'm Director of our Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute and I'm also a freelance music producer with a few albums to my name. I'm also a musician, drummer, guitarist and vocalist. My Doctorate is in acoustics, electronics and more specifically digital vibration analysis. My first degree is in Mechanical Engineering. I've written a book on embedded systems design "Fast and Effective Embedded Systems Design" and I'm also the developer and inventor of the Percussionizer drum tuning software, which more recently has evolved into the iDrumTune  iPhone app.

Wow - the world of drum tuning has changed very rapidly this year, but for me it's been a long time coming. Back in 2005 I started a research project to analyse drums with the intention of scientifically quantifying what was in and out of tune. To do this I wrote a piece of software which I called Percussionizer and started to demonstrate this software internationally in 2008. Percussionizer could do many novel and advanced things for analysing and tuning drums - it could record and display a drum hit and tell you the fundamental and most prominent overtone frequencies. It would tell you which musical pitch the drums were tuned to. It allowed you to set a target frequency which would bandpass filter a window around that target, removing noise and allowing the user to home in on their preferred sound. It had a mode for equalising or clearing the drumhead, which allowed you to take a number of bandpass filtered readings from around the edge of the drum and showed you the results. For each lug it would show whether you needed to tune higher or lower in order to achieve a uniform tuning of the drumhead. It would also allow you to analyse the relative tunings of the batter and resonant heads, to gain an understanding of how the different tensions interact and the resulting sound. Percussionizer also had a mode to allow analysis of decay times, so you could add damping to the drum and work out how many milliseconds was the ideal decay for your preferred drum sound. In this mode there was also a feature to bandpass filter the different frequencies, so that you could evaluate whether the fundamental and the first overtone had similar or different decay times. Percussionizer also had a feature to allow the user to load pre-set tuning profiles for different drum styles and genres. Loading in, for example, pre-set target frequencies for a 5 piece kit tuned for rock music or a 4 piece jazz kit. The user could also create and store their own user pre-sets and users could share their pre-set files with others. Percussionizer actually worked! And I was very proud of it.


I first demonstrated Percussionizer internationally at The Art of Record Production conference in Lowell (near Boston, Massachusetts) in 2008 and my article was published subsequently in their Journal in 2009 - "The perception and importance of drum tuning in live performance and music production". In 2009 I then showcased the Percussionizer software at the world's largest Audio Engineering Society Conference in New York. Here I gave a 90 minute tutorial to a huge audience of people interested in drum tuning and percussion acoustics (see here). During the tutorial I discussed the importance of drum tuning, described the fundamental vibration science and demonstrated the Percussionizer software in its entirety. It was a fantastic event and the audience were excited to see my novel approach to tuning and analysis. This tutorial was audio recorded and can be purchased from the AES website here. I also published my tutorial slides on my own website here. At the end of the tutorial I explained that my next step was to develop an iPhone app, which would bring this software to a mass marketplace. More recently I've presented my drum and drum tuning research in the UK in 2010 "Fine tuning percussion – a new educational approach" and in the highest regarded acoustics journal in the world, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America "Analysis and manipulation of the modal ratios of cylindrical drums". A number of my publications have been in collaboration with Dr Phill Richardson, of Cambridge University, who's PhD I supervised in exactly this field of quantitative drum tuning - he's an international expert in all this too!

Prior to demonstrating my software I applied for a worldwide patent on the new drum tuning approach - method, software and apparatus. The patent was first applied for in 2007 and went fully public in 2010. Here, you can read my patent - Tuning or Training Device - which covers all the aspects of the Percussionizer software and hardware design.

Indeed, one of the claims was also for a hardware version of the Percussionizer software and specifically a handheld or portable version. I was in limbo really, as I couldn't afford to build a handheld device, so I just waited, knowing that soon the iPhone or something similar would come along and allow me to bring the idea to market and more importantly to the wonderful public world of drummers.  In fact I even received a UK Government Innovation Grant to help with the patent costs. Now, I recently decided not to continue with the Patent, for a combination of reasons. One: the Patent Office were never really convinced of its originality, stating that guitar tuners and spectrum analysers already existed and this was essentially just a simple modification of that, but with no major scientific step. They also highlighted some similar prior art and research publications which showed I wasn't really the first person to think of this (there were a number of people even before 2005 publishing and applying for patents in this field). Two: I was advised by my patent solicitors that it's very difficult to patent or claim a patent over something which is entirely software based, so even if I did receive a patent, it would be very difficult to stop other people making software versions that were similar. Three: The cost - it's very expensive to maintain a patent and even more expensive to defend one. I'm an academic and wanted my research and innovations to be seen by the world, I didn't want too many commercial issues getting in the way of me sharing my knowledge and art. Four: I really believe innovation is so much more powerful if it is shared. I'm not really a believer in ownership of knowledge, it's what you do with the knowledge that makes a difference, not the knowledge itself.

So, as a result, as far as I'm concerned, quantitative drum tuning with electronic hardware devices, advanced signal processing and software features is now public domain - it has been ever since I first presented in 2008, 2009, the patent was published in 2010 and I've continued to share this knowledge worldwide since too. Last year I finally launched my iPhone version of the Percussionizer software and called it iDrumTune, which has had a fantastic result in getting my innovations to a wider market and the broad group of drummers in the world. The feedback has been fantastic and fulfilling, though I really haven't been able to implement some of the most exciting features that were present in Percussionizer, but hopefully one day funds and time will permit that.


Not surprisingly we now have some other similar innovations on the market. Most notably the Tune-Bot and iDrumTech iPhone App. These products are exciting and personally I welcome the competition - essentially we all stand to benefit if the drumming community collectively adopts a more technical approach to drum tuning. So we all help to build the marketplace which is certainly big enough for everyone - there are a lot of drummers out there! I have to be honest, I think that my iDrumTune app is the most accurate of them all (I know, I would say that of course!), as I have spent years tweaking my algorithm, fine tuning my Fourier analysis to be accurate to a fraction of a Hz, and I've done some very critical testing on benchmark signals with high quality audio laboratory equipment. I certainly know if you give iDrumTune 100Hz it will read 100Hz, or at least within 0.5Hz, which is better than the human ear can achieve (scientifically there is a reason why the accuracy cannot theoretically ever be greater than about 0.3Hz, but that's a very long story of maths and signal processing...). I'm also pretty sure that my algorithm for detecting peaks and overtones is the best out there too, my lug tuning feature is pretty solid and has always used some advanced adaptive bandpass filters to automatically home in on the frequencies of interest or those chosen by the user's target frequency, whilst ignoring other overtones and background noises.  But iDrumTech is a wonderful tool too - with a vast array of tuning benchmarks and many features. Tune-Bot is a hardware version, which is great for people without iPhones and an excellent product to see on the market. My initial vision and patent was to develop a bespoke portable device, but then the iPhone came along with its high quality microphone, audio interface and touchscreen display technology and saved me many pounds of development cost in building something bespoke and for a single purpose. I like the Tune-Bot system, but my main concern, purely from a scientific perspective, is that it is usually fixed and positioned in one place on the drum. The fundamental science dictates that the microphone will measure the sound (i.e. the vibration characteristic) of the position of the microphone, NOT the position of the hit. So actually the microphone and drumstick should always be as close as possible to the same point if you are trying to analyse deviations in frequency around the drumhead. So if using Tune-Bot I'd really recommend holding the device in your hand and moving it around the drum as you test each lug, that will certainly give you more accurate results.

But I hear now that Tune-Bot and iDrumTech are at odds with each other over 'ownership' of this technology. I mean, I don't really want to get involved if I'm honest, but it's hard to watch people argue over ownership of something which I myself actually invented more than six years ago and have published, presented and patented along the way. I made all this knowledge public domain so that there is now a free market for anyone to develop an electronic drum tuning system along these lines. Of course if someone does something truly novel and innovative then they deserve the right to protect that. I know Tune-Bot have a patent published recently, which I've read in detail, but I fail to see where it shows any inventive step over the patent I wrote back in 2007 and published in 2010. You can make your own mind up by looking at the two here if you like...

Percussionizer Patent - first applied 2007

Tune-Bot Patent - first applied 2011

Anyway, I know I'll probably get roped into this discussion which I really don't have time for. But I've generally moved on from drum tuning and am enjoying a number of music production projects and other innovations in the world of music technology.

Ultimately my take on it is this

'Knowledge is free - it's what you do with it that counts'

Be the best, be better than the competition, work hard, market hard, love what you do, and enjoy your slice of the cake.
twitter: @idrumtune
twitter: @DrRobt